Verb Tense: Writing Skills Success Study Guide (page 3)
Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Verb Tense: Writing Skills Success Practice Exercises.
Language is fossil poetry.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet (1803–1882)
As the "movers and shakers" of language, verbs drive language and give it life. They are the energetic part of speech. Because they are so important, mistakes involving verbs really stand out. They can make or break the outcome of an exam, essay, or business letter. The next two lessons will help you learn how to avoid the most common errors involving these important words.
Writers use words to establish their credibility. Few things cast doubt on a writer's believability as much as misusing words—especially verbs. Incorrect verb forms call special attention to themselves and bring the writer's education and intelligence into question. Furthermore, exams often test your knowledge of how to use verbs and avoid errors involving verbs.
This lesson explains how to use verbs correctly and highlights a few of the most common mistakes writers make. See how many of the seven errors in verb usage you can find in the Problem version of the passage below. In the Solution section, the paragraph is rewritten with the correct verb forms. As you go through the lesson, try to apply the rules you learn to these corrections.
Wendy circles five advertisements in last Sunday's newspaper. She had been looking for a job for three months, and she is starting to get nervous about finding one. The money her mother had gave her was starting to run out and she knows she couldn't asked for more. If she was more qualified, she would of received a job offer already. However, she had very little work experience, and the job market was particularly competitive at this time of year. As she start to write cover letters for this week's jobs, she wondered if she should met with a career counselor for advice.
Wendy circled five advertisements in last Sunday's newspaper. She had been looking for a job for three months, and she was starting to get nervous about finding one. The money her mother had given her was starting to run out and she knew she couldn't ask for more. If she were more qualified, she would have received a job offer already. However, she had very little work experience, and the job market was particularly competitive at this time of year. As she started to write cover letters for this week's jobs, she wondered if she should meet with a career counselor for advice.
Principal Parts of Verbs
Verbs have three principal parts:
- Present—the form of the verb that would complete the sentence, "Today, I_____."
- Past—the form of the verb that would complete the sentence, "Yesterday, I_____."
- Past participle—the form of the verb that would complete the sentence, "Often, I have_____."
For most verbs, it's easy to form the three principal parts if you know the present form. Take the verb look, for example. Today, I look. Yesterday, I looked. Often, I have looked. For regular verbs, the past and past participle forms both add -ed to the present form. But English is full of irregular verbs that form the past and past participle in some other way. The following table shows the principal parts of several often misused verbs.
Consistent Verb Tense
The tense of a verb tells when an action occurs, occurred, or will occur. Verbs have three basic tenses: present, past, and future. It's important to keep verb tenses consistent as you write. A passage that begins in present tense should continue in present tense. If it begins in past tense, it should stay in past tense. Do not mix tenses.
- Dan opened the car door and looks for his briefcase.
- Dan opened the car door and looked for his briefcase.
- When we increase maintenance services, we reduced repair costs.
- When we increase maintenance services, we reduce repair costs.
However, sometimes a writer must show that an action occurred at another time regardless of the tense in which the passage was begun. To allow this, each of these three tenses has three subdivisions: progressive, perfect, and progressive perfect.
Present Tense Forms
Present tense shows action that happens now or action that happens routinely. The present progressive tense shows an action happening now. An auxiliary verb (am, is, or are) precedes the -ing form (progressive form) of the verb. The present perfect tense shows an action that began in the past. An auxiliary verb (have or has) precedes the past participle form of the verb. The present perfect progressive tense also shows action that began in the past and is continuing in the present. Auxiliary verbs (have been or has been) precede the verb written in its -ing form (progressive form).
All the above present tense forms can be used together without constituting a shift in tense. Look at the following paragraph to see how this is done. The verbs are highlighted, and the brackets identify the tense.
I am writing [present progressive] to protest the condition of the Mississippi River, from which our city draws [present] its drinking water. For years, industrial waste has polluted [present perfect] its waters, and officials pay [present] little attention to the problem. People who live near the river have been lobbying [present perfect progressive] for protective legislation, but their efforts have failed [present perfect]. I want [present] safe water to drink.
Past Tense Forms
Past tense shows action that happened in the past. It uses the past form of the verb. The past progressive tense shows a continuing action in the past. An auxiliary verb (was or were) precedes the progressive (-ing) form of the verb. The past perfect tense shows an action completed in the past or completed before some other past action. The auxiliary verb had precedes the past participle form of the verb. The past perfect progressive tense shows continuing action that began in the past. The auxiliary verbs had been precede the progressive (-ing) form of the verb.
All of the following past tense forms can be used together in writing a passage without constituting a shift in tense. The following paragraph illustrates how this is done. The verbs are highlighted for you, and the brackets identify the tense.
Last year, local officials cited [past] a manufacturing company in our county for improperly disposing of hazardous waste. The company ignored [past] the action and continued [past] to dump its waste as they had been doing [past perfect progressive]. They had dumped [past perfect] waste the same way for years and planned [past] to continue. Several months later, the residue seeped [past] into the drinking water supply. A local environmentalist, who had been tracking [past perfect progressive] the company's dumping procedures, alerted local officials. They fined the company $3,000 for damages, but the company has never paid [past perfect] the fine.
Future Tense Forms
Future tense shows action that has yet to happen. The auxiliary verbs will, would, or shall precede the present form of the verb. The future progressive tense shows continuing actions in the future. The auxiliary verb phrases will be, shall be, or would be precede the progressive form of the verb. The future perfect tense shows actions that will be completed at a certain time in the future. The auxiliary verb phrases will have, would have, or will have been precede the past participle form of the verb. The future perfect progressive tense shows continuing actions that will be completed at a certain time in the future. The verb phrases will have been, would have been, or shall have been precede the progressive form of the verb.
All the future tense forms on the following table can be used together in writing a paragraph. They do not constitute a shift in tense. The following paragraph illustrates how this is done. The verbs are highlighted for you, and the brackets identify the tense.
Starting next week, we will reduce [future] the money we spend on waste disposal. We will do [future] this because our public relations costs have skyrocketed during the year. Since no one in the community will sell [future] land to us to use for waste disposal, we will be relocating [future progressive] in a new community with a better business environment. This move would put [future] over three hundred employees out of work. It would reduce [future] the amount of consumer dollars spent at local businesses.
By this time next year, nearly one thousand people will have lost [future perfect] their jobs. Your business leaders will have been looking [future perfect progressive] for ways to replace lost revenue. Furthermore, legislators will be meddling [future progressive] in our local affairs, and the news media will have portrayed [future perfect] us all as fools.
How Verb Tenses Convey Meaning
Managing verb tense carefully helps writers avoid the confusion that comes with thoughtless use. These examples illustrate how verb tense can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
- Beth discovered that Nick had left work and gone home.
- Beth discovered that Nick had left work and went home.
In the first sentence, because gone is the participle form, it goes with had left in the second part of the sentence. So Nick is the one who had gone home. In the second sentence, went is in the simple past tense like discovered in the first part of the sentence. So this time, it's Beth who went home.
- Cory told the officer that she had answered the phone and drank a can of soda pop.
- Cory told the officer that she had answered the phone and had drunk a can of soda pop.
In the first sentence, drank is in the same tense as told—they're both past tense. So Cory was drinking around the same time as she was telling. In the second sentence, had drunk matches had answered, so in this case, Cory was drinking around the time she answered the phone.
Have, not Of
When forming the various perfect tenses, people sometimes write of when they should write have, probably because they are writing what they hear. I should've (should've is a contraction of should have) sounds a lot like I should of. But the proper form in writing is have, not of.
- I could of seen the difference if I had looked more closely.
- I could have seen the difference if I had looked more closely.
- The park ranger should of warned the campers about the bears.
- The park ranger should have warned the campers about the bears.
Switching Verb Tenses
Sometimes, you have to switch from past tense to present to avoid implying an untruth.
- I met the new technician. He was very personable. [What happened? Did he die?]
- I met the new technician. He is very personable.
- We went to the new Italian restaurant on Vine last night. The atmosphere was wonderful. [What happened? Did it burn down during the night?]
- We went to the new Italian restaurant on Vine last night. The atmosphere is wonderful.
Even if a passage is written in past tense, a statement that continues to be true is written in present tense.
- During Galileo's time, few people believed [past] that the Earth revolves [present] around the sun.
- The building engineer explained [past] to the plumber that the pipes run [present] parallel to the longest hallway in the building.
When Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof sings, "If I were a rich man . . . ," he uses the verb were to signal that he is, in fact, not a rich man. Normally, the verb was would be used with the subject I, but were serves a special purpose. This is called the subjunctive were. It indicates a condition that is contrary to fact.
- If I were a cat, I could sleep all day long and never have to worry about work.
- If he were more attentive to details, he could be a copy editor.
Listen carefully to people today. Do you hear common errors such as "I could of gone out if I had done my work"? Once you make it a habit to listen for verb choice errors, you'll realize how many people make them. Some mistakes are so accepted that they might not sound strange at first. The more sensitive you are to grammatical errors, the less likely you'll be to make them yourself—in both writing and speaking.
Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Verb Tense: Writing Skills Success Practice Exercises.
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